Suffolk Commencement Speech: Rising to Meet the Moment
by MANNY LOPES (Delivered May 21, 2022)
Good afternoon, Suffolk University College of Arts and Sciences Class of 2022!
Thank you to President Kelly, Dean Bursik, provost Sandell, and the Suffolk Board of Trustees for the honor of addressing you at this momentous occasion.
My name is Manny Lopes and I am honored to be your commencement speaker. Traditionally, a commencement speaker imparts wisdom and inspiration for moving into the next stage of life. But as I began drafting these remarks, I realized something important pretty quickly. I realized that I don’t need to give you inspiration. Because really, you are the inspiration. Look to your left. Look to your right. Look at the peers
you’ve sat in class with, shared meals with, and stayed up with in the library and online. You’re sitting in a field of inspiration. By succeeding in your academic careers despite huge challenges and once-in-a- lifetime phenomena, you have risen to meet this moment. So today,
I’m going to change things up a little bit and talk about not just your future accomplishments, but also the ones you’ve already achieved.
I know a little bit about turning adversity into advantage. I know what it’s like to wrestle with challenges and emerge a stronger and better version of yourself. I first started working at the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, one of the largest community health centers in the county, at the age of 18. When I left the health center last year, I was president and CEO. (You can tell by the gray hair that a few years passed in between.) I’d like to tell you a little bit about that journey, and about growing up in Boston. I’ll even tell you a little bit about my DJ’ing days, to prove I was actually cool at one point.
When I was growing up on the streets of Eastie, I never imagined that one day I’d have the privilege of delivering a commencement address at Suffolk University, never mind to a cohort that has accomplished as much as you, the Class of 2022. Graduating from college is a huge feat on its own, and you know that. But you’ve done something even greater. You faced the usual question marks of the college years — figuring out who you are and what you want to do — while managing the immense stressors and uncertainties of recent years.
You had to accept a different urban college experience, without knowing, back in March 2020, exactly what that would mean. You adapted to virtual learning, spending your days online instead of classrooms and gathering places. You had to protect yourself and others from coronavirus, keeping up with changing guidelines, travel restrictions, and countless COVID tests. You likely had to deal with loved ones getting sick, and perhaps with loved ones dying. You may have had COVID yourself. You dealt directly or indirectly with job and income losses due to the pandemic. You faced challenges to your mental health and well-being. You didn’t ask for any of this.
And as the pandemic brought attention to the racial inequities that many of us were already well familiar with, your college years were punctuated by the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and so many other victims of racial violence. Your class lived through the media headlines that marked our history books. Through the anxiety and heartache, as a class, you maintained your academic priorities and navigated the pandemic while also fighting for racial justice and equity, for fair treatment of LGBTQ community members, for voting rights and human rights, for gender equality, for women’s rights to make their own decisions. As well as other issues that profoundly impact the most marginalized communities, and ultimately, all of us.
You, we, are not looking to replace anyone, and You, we, won’t be
You were smart to pick a university that encourages experiential and transformational learning opportunities. You chose Suffolk because you want to be on the frontlines. You want to engage and be engaged. You want to be where the action is, not just because it’s exciting, but because it’s where you can make the biggest impact. This is where you ask the question: How do I meet the moment?
I’ve often had to ask myself that question. And I still do.
My parents emigrated from Cape Verde, an island nation off the west coast of Africa. When I was young and my parents divorced, my mother became a single parent, raising me and my four siblings in our one- bedroom apartment. We knew what it meant to do without. I knew how much my mother sacrificed — and how hard she worked at thankless jobs — to keep us fed and clothed. I started working at an early age to help. At age 11 I delivered newspapers on roller skates. At age 14 I cleaned squid in a warehouse that sold calamari to restaurants. To this day, I’m not a huge fan of calamari. But these experiences were preparing me to meet the moment in ways I didn’t yet know at the time.
My grandmother passed away when my mother was young. Instead of going to school, my mother raised her six brothers. As a result, she was illiterate. While my mom didn’t have an education, she never let that keep her from providing for her family — first for her six brothers, and then for her five kids. She was my role model in rising to meet the moment.
Growing up, I had relatives in Angola, a country in southern Africa in the midst of what would be a brutal, 26-year-long civil war. My mother
wanted to bring our relatives to the United States, but first she had to become a US citizen. So, starting at age 11, I tutored her for three years to prepare her for the citizenship exam. When my mother passed that test, our lives changed dramatically. We went from being a family of 5 living in a one-bedroom apartment to being a family of 22 living in a one-bedroom apartment. As you can imagine, it was crazy – For Real.
At home, music became my outlet. I’d always loved music. Music was part of my household and my community. So, in high school I started a DJ company. For ten years people actually paid me to play music, have a great time, and pump up a crowd with my favorite tunes at proms and parties, and at some of Boston’s biggest nightclubs. You can imagine I thought I was pretty cool. I’m just glad you can’t see a picture of what I used to wear.
Around that time, I also decided to go to college. I wanted to get a degree to prove to myself and the world that I could. Despite systemic racism, despite my background, I set my mind on being a Black man with a college degree.
But college was expensive, even back then. My DJ earnings weren’t going to do it. So I found a job at the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center recruiting patients by phone for a hypertension study.
I worked at the health center the entire time I was getting my
bachelor’s degree. As a kid and as a DJ, I was used to getting attention by being loud and witty. But at the health center, and as a college student, I had to figure out how to do things differently. At times I was plagued by self-doubt. I hadn’t yet heard the term “imposter
syndrome,” but that’s how I felt. Was I good enough? Did I go to the right school? Did I speak how professionals should speak? Did I wear the right clothes? Was it obvious I had no idea what I was doing? And these voices weren’t just in my head. At many turns I was told that I wouldn’t succeed, that I wasn’t the right color, that I didn’t come from the right background. Ultimately, I had to figure out how to be me, even if that meant not being liked by everyone else.
Let me be very clear, that it’s okay to make changes to address your insecurities and facilitate your personal and professional goals. We all do that to some degree. But conformity is a slippery slope. You can lose yourself, which is a loss for all of us. Because with authenticity comes power. And with power comes the ability to affect meaningful change. This is the engine behind rising to meet the moment. As a community, we need you to be the most authentic you, whoever you are. Think of it like this: Being yourself does us all a great favor.
As I stated, I worked my way up through the ranks of the health center. I learned everything I could about increasing access to health care for the underrepresented in communities like East Boston, Chelsea, Revere, Everett, and Winthrop. From there, I transitioned to my current role as the Executive Vice President of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, the largest health care plan in the state. Along the way I married an amazing woman and had beautiful two sons.
The journey hasn’t been easy. Life is messy. I lost loved ones. I’ve been arrested multiple times due to racial profiling. First at 21, when I was charged with possession of a stolen vehicle. I’d rented a nice car and was driving while Black. Police officers surrounded the car, made me and my friends get out, and threw us to the ground. They didn’t believe I’d rented the car even when I produced the rental contract. But I refused, and I still refuse, to be bitter. Bitterness slows us down. Those experiences, and the other challenges I’ve experienced, only made me more determined. They made me more me. I still face the insecurities that come with being human and trying to make a difference. But adversity helps us get comfortable in our authentic selves.
You’re already aware that history repeats itself. We often call the events of recent years unprecedented, but the injustices being perpetrated around the world today are uncomfortable echoes of the 20th century. Sometimes the ugliness is overwhelming. Sometimes the hard stuff makes you want to crawl under the bed and not come out.
But life is also good. I’m not going to read you poetry about the beauty of suffering, but I will say that the hard stuff connects us not only to who we are but also to each other. The hard stuff makes us stronger.
And you, through everything you have endured, the strengths you’ve developed, and the community you’ve fostered — you are prepared to be our next Greatest Generation. By confronting the challenges of our times, by continuing to rise to meet this moment, you too will lead us to new levels of political courage, creative accomplishment, technological advancement, and more equitable prosperity. As the Class of 2022, you get to write this next chapter in our shared history, and I can’t wait to cheer you on.